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Avenger Assembled

In a Handbasket (IC)

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"So, what do you think, man?" Farouk al-Fayid was an immigrant from Pakistan, a cordial, friendly man with an East Indian accent and full beard. He'd thought the strange, silent new man on the busboy crew at Champions was Indian too, but Murdock had turned out to be...well, he wasn't really sure. But he was a loner and from far away, and that was something the refugee from civil war and death could certainly understand.

"I am unsure of its purpose," said Murdock after a long, slow silence, speaking in his usual deliberately chosen monotone. "The flavoring is unpleasant, and chemical poisoning will happen very quickly if drunk." He was about to try the smile he'd been practicing in the mirror over his bathroom sink when he heard a cry from across the bar. Looking up, he saw six human males sitting with one female, the bruise on her cheek telling him she was the source of the first cry. A moment later, the male that was her companion struck her across the face again.

"You think Jack of all Blades is so cute, huh, sugar-lips? Maybe you see how much your hero likes you when your face looks like something my cat dragged in!" His circle seemed to find that hilarious.

"Aw, c'mon, Tommy," the female was pleading, fear in her too-wide eyes, "I was just making a joke, it's-"

Murdock's jaw tightened, his hand on the bar turning white as the taunting and blows continued across the room. "Who is that?" he asked Farouk.

"Ah, man, I don't think you should mess with those guys," said Farouk, looking around uncomfortably. "It's a guido bar, man, and they let in a lot of wise guys. Best if you don't...ah, Murdock, damn it!" But he was too slow, as Murdock had already gotten to his feet.

The gangsters sat like kings among men, and were so busy enjoying watching one of their number torment a weaker person that they never looked up until Murdock was among them.

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Murdock caught the fist as it came up again, Tommy V's punch landing hard enough to produce a clang against the metal under his skin. "Is your power so great," he hissed at the suddenly wide-eyed gangster, "that you must prove it on the bodies of the weak?" The bar went dead silent, the proles meaning nothing to Murdock as he stared implacably at the abuser of the innocent. Catalina took the opportunity to split, slipping out under the table and heading straight for the door.

After a long moment of shocked silence as the gangster unsuccessfully tried to pull his wrist free, Tommy V exclaimed, "Jesus! Claude, waste this son of a bitch!" The gangster just behind Tommy immediately went into action, silently drawing a pistol and firing a shot into Murdock's midsection. The bullet clanged off the metal inside the man, and all the gangsters suddenly cursed. "Christ, he's a meta!" Taken aback by the sudden ferocity from the powerless humans, Murdock just stood there, still holding onto Tommy's wrists, as a volley of gunfire hit him, heavier and more powerful than he'd expected. One shot hit him in the eye, richocheting right off the armored plating beneath. And that was startlement enough to trigger his instincts.

The armor erupted from Murdock's back with a CLANGCLANGCLANG and RIP of forgiving flesh giving way before Terminus steel, bursting around and enfolding his body, his face vanishing beneath an erupting mass of faceless, spiked black metal that burst from his very skin, a few drops of blood falling as his body vanished beneath an eruption of armor and gear usually kept folded away in the fourth-dimensional space inside his bones. Within the space of just a few seconds, a bristling, ferocious Omegadrone took shape in the middle of the bar. And then the screaming started.

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Screams ripped from innocent and guilty throats alike the monster that had haunted so many of their nightmares since 1993 stood before them. There was more gunfire now from terrified, fleeing patrons, the bullets and hurled dishware all easily bouncing off the armor that encapsulated and enfolded Harrier. Oh no. He thought. He disposed of the gangsters expertly, smashing his armored fist into Tommy's face, then beating his way through the others like they weren't there. He didn't even need to draw his pike, instead simply smashing them aside with spiked, armored fists that broke their human bones like cardboard. Lady Liberty will be angry. I need to leave.

Ignoring the gunfire, he turned and walked towards the rear door of the bar, planning to simply batter his way through if no alley exit presented itself, and to fly away once that deed was done. But then, just as he reached the door, the white face of the man who'd been behind the bar burst out, carrying a green and brown rocket tube. "Take this, you Terminus-OH CRAP!" He hadn't been expecting Harrier to be standing right there, and panicking, he fired! Harrier acted on instinct, bringing up his pike and deflecting the blast, sending the projectile to the ceiling where it erupted in a tremendous, blinding explosion.

Seconds later, Harrier pulled himself to his feet. The building was on fire, smoke obscuring his sensors, and he was surrounded by the bodies of those who'd fled the blast too slowly, their slowly-moving chests the only signs of life in their battered bodies. Oh. This was a mistake. He looked around for a moment, feeling the bar floor creak under his hundreds of pounds of weight, and finally made a decision: he took the bartender's unconscious body in his arms, and began making the first trip out the rear door. There'd been one there the whole time!

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The muffled explosion and the smoke it created threw up a beacon to any heroes in the area that danger was in the air and help was required! High in the sky above Freedom City, a figure waited poised to answer that call. A flash of red, white, blue and gold cut through the clouds, and with a whoosh, Miss Americana was flying to the rescue! "Don't be afraid!" she called out to the citizens as she swooped down to the scene of the disaster. "I'm here to help!"

With her perfect forehead furrowed in concentration, Miss Americana landed and surveyed the scene. There had obviously been some kind of explosion in this bar, with civilian casualties trapped inside! Without a moment's hesitation, she flew into the burning building to help, just in time to miss the very imposing figure exiting out the back.

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As the patriotic paladin charged into the conflagration, figures in royal blue and deep crimson bounded acrobatically from the roof of a nearby deli. "Who was that?" the smaller of the pair asked, cocking an eyebrow over her bandanna mask.

"Lady Liberty's very attractive, younger sister?" the elder sibling suggested as they sprinted toward the burning building. A wisp of the flame leapt from the bar to spin itself into a long, thin ribbon, solidifying into a blazing rapier as it reached his outstretched hand.

The teenage girl pulled a face as her own hands went forward, a shimmering sphere of translucent blue energy blinking into being around them. "Classy, hermano."

"Always, hermanita. Now let's go save some lives!" With that, Jack of all Blades and Jill O'Cure crashed through the front door.

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The bar itself was not on fire; the first was actually in the apartment overhead that luckily appeared to be vacant. Something had smashed its way through the ceiling and set the place upstairs alight as if by a gigantic explosion. But heat was growing from the burning timbers overhead, the air thick enough to make Jill and Jack cough before Jill's bubble asserted itself, and it wouldn't be long at all before things overhead started to cave in, dumping flaming timbers down on the trapped people below. Unless someone did something about the fire!

Just as the heroes took in the four people still trapped inside the bar, all of them still unconscious, an Omegadrone walked in through the open back alley door. Clearly recognizable as one of Omega's faceless minions amidst the flames, glistening black power pike at its side, the blank-faced creature in armor stood there with flames licking at it, the armor visibly heating up from the ambient heat in the room. Harrier wasn't sure what to do. I don't know them. They won't trust me. None of the three heroes could see his face, so instead he turned his body and headed for the nearest victim.

From outside, Miss Americana, Jack, and Jill put words to the yelling fire victims for the first time. "It's an Omegadrone! There's an Omegadrone in there!"

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Miss Americana gasped, her blonde curls bouncing as she turned to face the new and far more deadly threat. "Holy sh- um, Not so fast, Omegadrone!" she called to it, raising a hand in defiance, her sparkling blue eyes full of purpose. It seemed like an empty gesture until blasts of red, white and blue light shot from her fingertips, straight for the hulking menace from beyond the stars! "Quickly!" she called to the other two costumed heroes. "I'll hold him off while you rescue the civilians! There isn't much time!"

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The patriotic lasers struck Harrier in the mid-section, their blast superheating his armor right through to the flesh it protruded from underneath. The faceless drone staggered under the blast, shielding its invisible face with an armored limb. And then it did something neither of them had ever heard an Omegadrone doing: it spoke. Omegadrones made noise sometimes; hideous growls, shrieks of unimaginable emotion as they died, but never this. "The building!" it plead, its robotic voice just audible over the sound of the fire overhead. "Stop!"

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Miss Americana paused, her hand raised as though to fire again, as uncertainty passed over her lovely features. "You shouldn't be talking," she said aloud. "What are you?" Abruptly she lowered her arm and closed her eyes, looking for a moment as though she were deep in meditation, for all this was the strangest of places to do it. Mere seconds passed before she opened her eyes and the animation returned to her features. "What are you," she asked again, though it was clear that this time she actually expected to get some kind of response.

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"Right, yes, let's all just stand totally still in the burning building, then," Jack grumbled under his breath before adjusting his grip on his fiery blade and closing his eyes. Reaching out with his will, he made a mighty diagonal slash, and the blaze abruptly dissipated as though smothered by a stiff wind. Seemingly wearied from the effort, the swashbuckler moved subtly closer to the Omegadrone, training keeping fear and anger down in place of wary analysis. "Jill, roof. Miss, if I might be so bold, hows about letting the guy with the stabbing oriented powerset deal with Mr. Chatty Drone while you get everyone clear?" The red, white and blue clad supermodel seemed to have paragon-esque abilities; hopefully enhanced strength was among them. While Jill, suddenly pale, nodded silently and created a shimmering blue barrier holding the damaged building together, her brother turned his attention mored directly to the metal monster. "Little less cocky without an army of buddies, huh?"

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"I am Harrier. I am no longer what I appear to be. I have no allies." The Omegadrone's voice was an almost perfect computer monotone, sounding like what Stephen Hawking might if he was playing Hannibal Lecter. "There are two more." it added, pointing to the door behind it. " Injured." The fire died out, leaving the place oddly quiet, save for the groaning of timbers overhead. They did the same beneath Harrier, its metal body putting an evident strain on the damaged floorboards beneath its feet. It, no, he, looked up at the ceiling. "The building will collapse soon."

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"Fascinating," Miss Americana murmured, arching one perfect eyebrow. "He might actually be telling the truth." The swordsman's plan made sense though, so she had work to do. "Don't let him get away," she cautioned the swordsman, "if he's truly a sentient Omegadrone, he could provide invaluable opportunities for research into the Terminus!" With that, she ran in the direction the drone had indicated, indeed finding the two injured civilians and carrying them to safety outside the compromised building.

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"So, what, you're Casper the Friendly Drone?" Jack asked Harrier, his defensive stance placing him between the armoured extradimensional creature and his sister. "I don't buy it. Leopards and spots."

"I dunno, Jack, we - hnn - haven't actually seen him do anything but help," Jill pointed out, sweat beading on her forehead as she kept the building from falling apart on their heads. "Didn't you say you knew a zombie hero?"

Jack paused but didn't take his eyes from Harrier. "Well, yeah, but-"

"Or how about that good vampire?"

"Well, 'good' might be kind of oversta-"

"Altas got mind controlled by the Grue, but you always - whhf - told me he was 'good people'."

Jack finally gave the coltish girl a sidelong glance. "Jill, we gotta do this now?"

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"I am not very friendly," replied Harrier, completely missing the cultural reference. Instead he stared up at the ceiling and said, "I tried to help. I failed." Suddenly, the armor he was wearing...retreated. Jack and Jill had images of shocking mutilation as the metal slid back inside his body: not through his pores like high-tech armor they'd seen, but rather through slits and cracks that opened in his skin, showing muscle and bone as his body warped back in on itself, leaving behind a brown-skinned man that looked more like a 24 villain than anything else. "You should let the ceiling fall when you are gone."

Outside, as Ms. Americana deposited the last injured party on the sidewalk, a woman rushed up to her. "You, lady! Please!" The woman was dressed like a club-goer, but looked like she'd taken some hard hits over the evening, her face bruised and her blouse torn. "That...that man in there, the Omegadrone! He wasn't the bad guy! He tried to save me from my...my ex," she added, looking around worriedly. "He was beating on me, and that man, he...he saved me."

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"He did?" Miss Americana asked with surprise, listening to the young woman's story. "Fascinating," she said again. "Thank you for telling me that." With that, she darted back into the building. "The civilians are clear," she reported, "and one of the ones outside had something very interesting to tell me." She glanced at the Omegadrone. "Is it true that you were trying to save someone from getting beaten up, before the fighting started?"

Even as she asked, the lovely superheroine was scanning the ceiling, looking for its weak points. She frowned as she saw the large broken ceiling joist, obvious through a large hole in the drop tiles. Pointing at an overturned table nearby, she cut it into two neat pieces with her multicolored power beams, drilled holes in the ends, and proceeded to begin repairing the ceiling.

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As the Omegadrone's armor plates retracted horribly into his body, the masked siblings recoiled reflexively, exclaiming in unison, "Dios!" Jill, by this point breathing heavily from the exertion, gave her brother a significant, flat look.

"Don't start with me," he warned, pointing a finger at her before turning back to Harrier. "Man, we're not dropping a freaking building on you, get up." When Miss Americana reappeared and questioned the unarmored drone, the swashbuckler finally lowered his sword. "Seriously? Are we doing the misunderstanding fight slash team-up thing? 'Cause I hate that."

As the star spangled heroine set about working on the roof, Jill watched intently. "Uh, are we good? Can I stop holding this up?"

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Even with the mask off, Harrier's face moved in odd ways, as if he was unused to having expressions at all. It wasn't that his eyes were dead, so much that there was so much between him and the world around him. In a slow monotone that at least sounded like a human being talking, he said, "A woman was being struck. I caught the hand of the man who did it. You can identify him. No others will have the broken elbow." There was, just for a second, a glimpse of pride in his voice. "The others shot me. I activated my armor," he added sorrowfully. "As I left, a man fired a rocket. It struck the ceiling instead."

He looked from one to the other of the heroes before him and said, "You should not fight each other. I am to blame."

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"Just one more second..." Miss Americana told Jill, floating up near the ceiling as she used her powers to spot weld a metal chair leg through the table pieces she'd married to the broken joist. "All right, go ahead and let go." She watched critically as the repair took on the weight of the floor above it, then nodded approvingly and dusted off her hands. She hadn't even chipped her manicure. "That should hold long enough for them to get a proper carpenter in, at least."

She alighted gently back on the ground and took in the suddenly pitiable figure of the Omegadrone. "We'd better get you out of here before the civilians realize the danger is passed. There are a lot of people out there who aren't going to ask about your motives, I'm afraid. But we could learn so much from you!" She looked up to the swordsman and his sidekick. "Do either of you know a safe place to take him for the moment?"

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"Woof," Jill exclaimed, her force field winking out of being. Taking a steadying breath, she moved to stand next to her brother and address Harrier with a amiable smirk. "He meant teaming up with you, dummy."

The swordsman extended a hand to the strange man. "Anybody who gets between a lady and some creep like that is my kind of people," he asserted. "Don't get me wrong, you're still ten kinds of freaky, but for now let's get you out the back door."

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Harrier's grip was bizarrely solid, his flesh soft over diamond-hard bones underneath. "Good afternoon," he said, as if it was something he'd learned to say when someone shook his hand. Silently, the former Omegadrone turned and walked out the rear door, his heavy feet thumping loudly against the wooden floor, but quieter on the asphalt outside. He didn't seem inclined to argue with either of the three heroes. He cocked his head, listening to the noise of the crowd out front. "A coworker witnessed the altercation. I am no longer employed. I am...glad the woman is well." He looked up at the half-visible sky overhead, the stars almost completely swallowed by the light pollution of the city and a faint haze overhead. It was, as usual, beautiful enough to Harrier's eyes to move him almost to tears. "The night is beautiful. Even now. I can return to my apartment until it is no longer mine."

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"Oh, that reminds me!" Miss Americana said suddenly. "I'll be back in just a moment. Rising up out of the alley, she flew over the building to address the crowd. "People of Freedom City, the danger is passed! The creature you saw was not an Omegadrone at all, merely a shapeshifter who took form of a drone in order to cause panic and fear. The building is currently stabilized and the fire is out. If anyone has any information about the man who the shapeshifter impersonated, please step forward and tell me now, so that we can make sure he is not in danger, wherever he is."

It wasn't the most inspired story, perhaps, but it was believable enough to be true, and really, the magic was all in the delivery.

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Following Harrier out into the alleyway, Jack paused from flexing his hand experimentally to watch the patriotic paragon addressing the crowd on the other side of the building. "Damn, but that is a whole lotta woman," he observed appreciatively.

His sister was right behind him, adjusting his bandanna mask irritably as she stepped out of the sweltering heat of the bar into the cool air. "This is why I can't keep a positive female role model around, you know."

"Hey, do I interfere with your social life?" the swordsman asked with mock hurt.

"Yes," Jill responded immediately, placing one hand on her hip. "Frequently."

Jack shrugged, allowing the point. "True." He turned to the somber man next to him. "So, how that you're back in the black, hows about a little exposition? What's your real deal, Neil?"

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"My name is Steven Murdock. But he died many years ago." Harrier looked around the alley, back and forth, the joints in his neck moving with a slow, methodical machine's precision. Even with the suit inside, his body language was...off. "I once was what I appear to be. But there was an accident." The word seemed to have some deep meaning for him. "And then I was free. Those who found me sent me to this place, so I could live." He studied the battered-looking building before them. "I studied your history. Took the name of one of your champions. I want to help."

Out front, a very nervous man stepped forward. "He, uh, he looked like my friend Murdock. We work together at, uh, Champions. I don't know what was going wrong with him, miss, he got into it with those, uh, boys..." Farouk pointed at six _unconscious_ men in cheap suits, the mobsters all alive but with enough broken bones to show they'd taken a quick, merciless beating. "And then everything went crazy. You said he was some kind of Grue?"

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Miss Americana took a moment to turn the full force of her attention onto Farouk. "We believe that your friend may have been temporarily replaced by a shapeshifter, who had unknown motives. I hope that we will find your friend Murdock safe and well, that he may return to his normal life. He may need your help to do so after an ordeal like this." She rested a hand on his shoulder, looking deep into his eyes. "I'm sure a compassionate man like you will be able to help him. Good luck." With that, she took to the sky, climbing out of sight before doubling back and scanning for the rest of the group, then landing in among them.

"I did what I could for you," she told the Omegadrone. "They think a shapeshifter took your place for a little while. You should come up with some kind of story about how you were tied up in your apartment for a day and then some superheroes came and helped you."

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"Pretty slick for a stars and stripes type there, beautiful," Jack observed with a lopsided grin veritably radiating roguish charm

Nearby, Jill ran a gloved hand over her masked face. "Yeesh. Well, good news, Steve," she drawled to the extradimensional cyborg, "your inside-out routine just became the second must disturbing thing I've seen today."

Ignoring her, the swordsman turned his attention somewhat regretfully back to Harrier. "Well, if you just need a place to lay low for a bit, you can head on back with us."

His sister raised an eyebrow and murmured under her breath, "Is that really such a good idea?"

"Hell, taking in strays is practically our mission statement," Jack assured her quietly. "Besides, I'd rather have him somewhere I can keep an eye on him for now, y'know?"

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